Thursday, February 29, 2024

Universal Experiences

There are certain universal experiences. The alpha and omega of birth and death to name the most obvious. Loss and grief is another. And, naturally, there are those feelings that start in the body like hunger, pain, and fear. Not only are these experiences universal today, but they have been universal throughout human history.

We might feel like we're alone, and at the end of the day we are, but if we open our ears, eyes, and hearts, there is an entire population of fellow beings who are telling and showing us that we are genuinely all in this together. Whether or not we're able to take comfort in that universality is up to us.

There are some universal human experiences, or near universal experiences, that the modern world has made less universal. Case in point, for most of our species' 300,000 years, pretty much everyone experienced life-sustaining hunting and gathering. We can joke about how we still hunt and gather it in the supermarket or online, but it's obviously not the same thing as going out into nature and understanding it enough to find sustenance there. Another previously universal experience that has today, like hunting and gathering, been relegated to a certain class of humans is caring for the children. Whereas our ancestors raised children collectively, today, it is largely the job of mothers, professional caregivers, and other early childhood professionals.

At the same time, our modern world offers us modern universal experiences, or near universal experiences, about which our ancestors knew nothing. Individual economic insecurity, for instance, is something that most of us, at one time or another, and to one degree or another, experience. Our ancestors raised children in the context of community, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins all playing their part. 

Not long ago I was out with a group of friends. It hadn't occurred to me that aside from my wife and me, none of them had children of their own. I made a comment about the rights of children to be included in day-to-day life, something that would make most readers of this blog nod along, only to have these smart, accomplished adults, tell me, in so many words, I was wrong. One of them even said, jokingly, but with an earnestness, "I would prefer that there were never children anywhere that I am."

In the grand scheme of things, this is an attitude outside the human experience, but one that is increasingly common in our modern world. Indeed, for most new parents, the last time they spent any meaningful time with young children in any context was when they, themselves, were young children, which is to say they have no experience at all with caring for them. No wonder so many new parents are anxious.

Another near universal modern experience is schooling. As cognitive psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, "Nowaday, when middle-class people become parents they typically have had lots of experience with schooling but little experience with caregiving. So when parents or policy makers hear from scientists about how much child learn, they often conclude that we should teach them more, the way we teach them in school. But children actually learn more from the unconscious details of what caregivers do than from any of the conscious manipulations of parenting."

This is something that was widely accepted, if not understood, when it was common for humans to spend their lives in societies that included children at the center of life. Schooling was, as Gopnik points out, "a very specific reaction to the rise of industrialization in nineteenth-century Europe." As an invention that has only been around for a couple hundred years, schools continue to be modeled on the assembly-line notions of standardization and efficiency, which is obviously a reasonable way to mass produce, say, washing machines, but not so great if our goal is to "produce" the kind of motivated, curious, critical thinkers that the world needs.

I've now spent more than a quarter century amongst preschoolers, learning at least as much from them as they've learned from me. Since almost of all of that experience has been among children who know they have permission to play, to ask and answer their own questions, to pursue their own passions and interests, I have had the privilege of spending my time with the only humans who have no experience with schooling. I've observed first hand how children educate themselves within the context of community. And since my schools have always been cooperatives in which their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles attend alongside the children, I believe that I've had more than a glimpse of what education and child-rearing looked like throughout most of the Homo sapiens experience.

The people like Alison Gopnik who study childhood learning tell us, flat out, that our schools are doing it wrong, that more "teaching" is not the answer. More play is. This is what is best, not just for children, but for all of us. The very fact that otherwise intelligent people would wish children away tells me that they are unknowingly suffering from a lack of children in their lives. I can tell you from personal experience that having children in my life makes me more creative, more optimistic, more open-minded, and more philosophical. When we remove children from the center of society, we lose the perspective of these new hearts and minds as they, for the first time, encounter our world. We lose the capacity for seeing the world anew. We lose one of the most fundamental connections between humans, not just today, but through history. As Gopnik points out, we relegate caring for children, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed, to what are essentially pink-collar ghettos. 

Of all the rifts in our world, this, I think is both the most profound and the most unappreciated.

During the past quarter century, I've tried, in my way, to shine a light on what to me seems so self-evident. That it's not just good for children, but for all of us, to re-normalize authentic childhood, which would mean re-normalizing authentic communities. Authentic communities are ones that embrace the presence and contribution of children everywhere there are humans. It's quite clear to me that in a fractured world, this is the one thing that would truly transform our world for the better.

Can it start in our preschool classrooms? We can try.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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